Travel with Kids: What I’ve Learned after Years of Family Travel

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Travel with kids can be one of the most rewarding things you ever do. Here are a few tips I’ve learn both a a solo traveler and as a traveling dad.

Travel with Kids: Some Tips

Everyone has their own advice for travel with kids. As we prepare to exit the safe and supple womb of Japan, I’ve been thinking about how best to travel with kids, and how I might be able to prepare them for the trip. At the time of writing, our kids have been to Mexico and Southeast Asia, but only in resort-like accommodation for one or two-week chunks.

They have yet to experience the joys and pitfalls of travel in the developing world. It’s about to get real on them soon, so I’ve been trying to glean some guidance for them from my past experiences. After some consideration and a look back at my old journals, I came up with a few bits of advice that are good for travelers of any age.

These early lessons came to me during a three-month backpacking trip through Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand in 1998 (the images you see here are scanned from prints from that trip). However, what I learned then is still relevant today, and the travel advice I write below is very useful in many places around the world, especially when traveling in the developing world.

#1: Make No Mean No

This isn’t the “no” you tell your son when he begs for some cheesy souvenir. This is the “NO” that you give to touts, souvenir sellers or anyone else trying to push you into an unwanted purchase or action. When traveling in places like India, Southeast Asia and Central America, there will always be someone around who sees you as a potential payday.

Don’t get offended, and don’t look at these people as evil. They’re not. They’re often just trying to make ends meet. It’s simple logic: When someone needs money, they often create a good or service they think people with money will buy.

Expect to be a target

Guess what? You have money. However you perceive your financial status, the locals around you see that you have enough money to travel, so you must have money. Therefore, you should expect a swarm of budding entrepreneurs every time you step off a bus. Get used to it.

Someone will try to sell you postcards or fruit or tacky T-shirts. Others may grab your arm and attempt to pull you into their restaurant. Another guy will be absolutely certain that you’ll love the comfortable beds at his uncle’s guesthouse.

These people are just trying to make a living, and selling goods and services to tourists can have a high success rate. The sales pitch varies. Some people are sweethearts about it. Others can be funny or really, really sad. Many of them, however, will act like pushy assholes.

You will not let this get to you

Not one bit. Instead, you will follow these three steps:

  1. Look the person in the eyes
  2. Smile
  3. Say “No”

Don’t shout it. Say it. And the smile should be friendly, not smug or aggressive. Let’s be clear: this is a display of confidence (yours) and a gesture of respect (towards them). If done correctly, you’ll be left alone. If someone keeps following you for several blocks trying to get you into their cyclo, then you might be doing it wrong. Get the formula right. Let’s review its three components.

Step one: Eye contact

You are recognizing them, not ignoring them. You are acknowledging that they are there and they are doing their job.

Step two: Smile

You’re not angry. Far from it. You’ve dealt with this this many times, and you’ll be finished with it again in just a moment and will continue on your way.

Step three: Saying “NO”

Vary the tone, volume and actual phrase as needed. “Nope, sorry.” or “No, I don’t need it thanks. No REALLY.” It all works if you keep it friendly but show that you mean it. Keep eye contact the entire time. This has to be done with confidence: the listener has to know that you’ve already made up your mind and that they should move on.

So many uncomfortable situations can be avoided by following this travel advice. Leave out any one component of the steps above and it may not work. You could end up with a crowd growing around you, trying to shove trinkets, flowers or flyers into your clenched fists. Instead of handling it calmly, some travelers go the other way, getting super aggressive by shoving or shouting their way past. Not only is this rude in general, but it can backfire. You run the risk of turning any frustrations the crowd may harbor and focusing that frustration on you. You could become the target of local pent up aggression, and it would be your fault.

This can take the form of teasing: for example, being followed few blocks if they have nothing better to do. It could also get really-real if you’re especially belligerent. I remember a Dutch travel companion once telling me about arguing with a postcard seller in Cambodia. It had been a bad day for her, she explained, and so when someone kept shoving a pack of postcards into her hand, she told the guy to f**k off and tossed his postcards onto the sidewalk.

He came at her with a brick.

Don’t go that road. These guys are pushy because it works. A lot of them get little respect in their daily life, so showing a little respect little can go a long way. A friendly but firm refusal is usually just right.

Respect is often reciprocal

Some of my most meaningful travel experiences started from conversations with postcard sellers and cyclo drivers once they realized I wasn’t a mark anymore. Once it was established that I wasn’t going to buy anything, I had people sit down and have real conversations for an hour before seeing a new tourist to target. The girl in the pic above and her brother were two people I kept in contact with for years. If I had pushed past them I would have never got to know them and their parents.

#2: Keep Some “Friends” Close By

Whenever I travel, I always bring a few imaginary friends with me. These “friends” are my allies and alibis. You should keep a few handy, too. Here’s why.

When interacting with local people and other travelers, you might be presented with unwanted situations or invitations. This is where the “friends” come in. They act as a scapegoat or escape hatch when you need one. The reasons for imaginary friends usually fall into two main categories:

Safety

When you’re jumping onto the back of a motorcycle-taxi at 3am in Phnom Penh and the driver asks if you are alone, you say no. You always have a “friend” waiting for you somewhere. In some situations, you might even want to fake a call to said “friend” and give him the license plate number.

Practicality

An old village woman asks you if you want to buy a hand-woven basket from her shop. It’s beautiful, but its more than you’d want to spend, and besides, it’s huge. You’d have to carry it for another month. This is when your girl-“friend” has your wallet somewhere else in the market.

Let “friends” take the blame

Now I know this is a game and I’m not into playing games with people, but sometimes this technique can get you out of a tough spot. Many of us already employ these type of friends in our neighborhoods and offices, and I’m sure that this is probably a staple of solo female travelers, but they also answer a lot of family travel-related problems on the road:

Situation A:

  • A shy little man in Luang Prabang approaches me and asks if I’d want to take his boat trip tomorrow. I planned to do something like that, but I’d just got off a 10-hour bus ride and just wanted to chill the next day, so:

“I’d love to, but I have to wait for my friend to get here so we can go together.”

Situation B:

  • A completely crazy 50-something German tourist asks me if I want to share a room with him to cut costs. This was a mere twenty minutes after he told me he always carries a semi-automatic pistol with him because “you never know.” He then went on a tirade on how Japan “is the most evil country in the world.”

Imaginary travel buddy: engage!

“Gee, Karl, I’d love to bunk with you, but I have to save this bed for my friend arriving tomorrow”

Situation C:

  • A middle-aged transvestite in Krabi interrupts my nap to offer me a “special massage.”

“Wow, you know there’s nothing I’d like better, but I already have a lady-boyfriend”

About now you’re starting to wonder how I apply this knowledge to my kids, right? Hopefully ladyboys will never enter the picture.

Here’s the takeaway: we will keep Jamie and Felicia close, but they will not always be right by our side. So if a stranger starts asking who they’re with, they will be encouraged to fake the presence of as many friends as they like: “Oh, we’re with our parents,” they can say, “…and a few of our friends on the Olympic Tae Kwon Do team, who are just in that shop right there…”

#3: The Sun is Your Frienemy

I am white. Like, REALLY white. The pale Welsh skin of my father’s ancestors lives on through me. My skin does not darken, unless you consider freckles to be tiny, site-specific tans. Instead, I go from white to pink to red — then back to white. If I’m lucky, I avoid a week of pain and peeling between that red-to-white stage.

In another cruel twist of fate, these weaker genes have been passed on to my own brood. Instead of inheriting the smooth, fragrant, melanin-rich derma of their mother, both of my kids are total crackers like their dad, forever quarantined to a life of floppy hats, shade and the shelter that only SPF-40 can provide.

Cover up!

The power of UV seems to double in Asia. I remember I used to laugh at little Japanese ladies in Tokyo during summertime, with their wide-brimmed hats and elbow-length gloves. I chuckled contemptuously at how they stood half a block from the crosswalk until the light changed, just to stay in the shade of the nearest tree. Now that’s me. I hop from shadow to shadow like I’m playing some twisted version of the game Frogger.

There is, however, a simple alternative to layers of sunscreen or long sleeve shirts: the common umbrella.

What a simple, elegant solution! PORTABLE SHADE! The only problem is that I look like a sissy, but after a few cases of severe sunburn, the part of my brain that feels shame was seared away. After an hour of Thailand’s ultraviolet assault, I didn’t care what the hell I looked like.

I hope to instill this idea in my brood when they need it.

#4: Learn to Improvise & Appreciate

These were separate topics in my journals, but now I know that they are essentially one and the same, and a crucial component of the travel advice that I would give my kids or anyone else: learn to appreciate and take advantage of what resources you have at your disposal.

If you’re reading this blog, then you probably fit into an elite class of people, because that means:

  • You can read.
  • There’s a computer and/or smart device in your daily life (at least one).
  • You have healthy children.
  • You (probably) have enough money to travel.

We don’t think of ourselves like this, but it’s true: life is pretty sweet for us. And compared with most people in the world, we have to compromise significantly less in our lives.

Remember what you have

And that’s one thing I like about being on the road — it shakes up your usual routines. It makes you adapt and compromise. Most travel is compromise. It’s baked in. Things are different wherever you go and so you must make adjustments to your schedule, your diet and your sleeping habits. Traveling could be considered a form of adaptation as entertainment.

My kids need travel advice that. Life in the comfortable confines of Tokyo is quite easy, and it can make you soft. It can create expectations that, when not met, can bend you out of shape over small and inconsequential things. It’s amazing what our kids can complain about:

  • They didn’t watch “enough” TV
  • They only had one kind of fruit for dessert
  • We’ve only eaten sushi once this week
  • The toilet paper isn’t soft enough

Real tragedies, right? Someone should call children’s services and rescue these little angels from our totalitarian grasp. No. Our kids need a little dash of the real. They need to see how other people live, and I need to be reminded, as well. Sometimes it takes an hour in the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum to realize just how silly your problems are.

Keep Perspective

Now please understand: I was just like them (here’s where Keiko shouts “You still are!”). I led a  middle class existence in the US just as they do here in Japan. It felt like I had less because someone always had more, but it was just a set of false expectations and a profound lack of appreciation. I had it. The kids have it. But I’m hoping to give them a head-start on curbing those expectations, and so the next time they’re confronted with rough toilet paper (or no toilet paper at all), they’ll be able to improvise their way out of it.

What’s your travel advice?

What other travel advice for traveling kids would you share? Have you received bad travel advice? Do yo agree or disagree with my travel advice? All travel advice is welcome. Share your thoughts in the comments below or contact me directly.

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